How might we respond to tragedy? One of the most tragic figures in the Torah is Noah at the end of the flood saga. It is a puzzling passage. On the one hand, Noah has saved the future of all life, carried safely in the Ark of his own making. On the other hand, he has witnessed the death of millions of sentient beings in the great flood.
What does he do? He plants a vineyard, perhaps attempting to rebuild. But the sweet grapes ferment and their liquor is intoxicating. He continues to drink the wine of his own making and is embarrassed in his drunken nakedness. Noah has given in to the dark and found escape from trauma in numbness.
When faced with tragedy it is normal to feel anger, guilt, denial, sadness and fear. In the greatest single trauma that our nation has experienced since the Holocaust, many of us have cycled through these emotions on a near daily basis. I know I have.
It is likely that we have a protective instinct to defend ourselves from feeling them because of the worry of being overwhelmed by them. We might push these feelings away, numb them in distractions or swallow them down into our bodies. Like Noah, we may be trying to escape the horrors that we have seen and cannot unsee.
How do we contain these emotions? Containment means the ability to hold something within something else, like water in a glass, without having to throw the contents out, drink them down or ignore their existence. Containment of emotions means being able to experience our feelings and choose how to respond wisely.
Over the past two weeks, we have come together as communities, mourned together, prayed together, supported Israel together and simply held each other. These are acts of containment. We contain our emotions because this is how we retain our humanity in the face of inhumanity.
Our sages tell us that in times of distress we should strengthen ourselves in prayer and repentance, Torah study and good deeds. One interpretation of this is the need for a spiritual rebalancing; we must counteract evil by manifesting goodness. I think there is another more basic interpretation.
The sages in their wisdom knew that it was precisely at times of pain that it would be most difficult to hold on to our values. It is at times like this that we may be pulled to respond with our worst selves, with rage, hatred and darkness. All these are understandable.
However, at times like this we must hold on to our ethics and morality tighter than we ever have before. Hate only poisons the hater, anger only destroys the angry, depression only defeats the depressed but responding with dignity and hope is how terror will never win.
Viktor Frankl observed, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
How could two people be so dissimilar? In interpretation of these different responses, Frankl’s most famous insight was found, “Between the stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our responses. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.
Frankl discovered the space between input and output and recognised that human choice filled that space.
We can either choose to dehumanise and darken or we can choose to strengthen our values and let our humanity shine.
A word about trauma. I was once driving with a very famous psychologist. The traffic started piling up owing to an accident further ahead. As we passed the scene of the crash, I instinctively turned to look towards the blue lights and broken glass. My passenger shouted, “Don’t look, don’t look.” Quizzically, I turned to him to see why he had raised his voice. He explained that seeing as we could not help the victims of the crash, there would be no value in witnessing their injuries.
Instead, we would be unnecessarily placing traumatic images into our heads that we would never be able to unsee.
Every day we are being drip-fed traumatic imagery on our screens. Vicarious experiencing of trauma can even threaten our health. The reason that we want to endlessly scroll through the news is because we want to feel connected to our brothers and sisters in Israel. The desire comes from a beautiful place. However, we also need to stay strong for them so that we can be the best support possible from afar. As such, I would recommend not looking more than two to three times a day at the news and avoiding graphic imagery.
As an alternative, when we feel that pull to connect to Israel, rather than reaching for our media outlet of choice, say a prayer, call a loved one, send messages of support to those with family at risk or donate to an Israeli charity.
Noah saw an apocalypse. No one would blame him for wanting to unsee what he could never forget. Noah began to rebuild after the Flood but somehow lost his way. We can choose differently.
We will also plant gardens after the war. I pray that from the rubble of Gaza City and the pounded earth of Sderot the vineyards will grow and under their laden branches the children will play in peace.
Dr Landau is rabbi of Barnet (United) Synagogue